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Q&A with epidemiologist Honglei Chen

Michigan State University is one of the top 100 research universities in the world and a member of the prestigious Association of American Universities, widely regarded as among the top research-intensive institutions in North America. The following story highlights one of the many examples of MSU’s research excellence and innovation.

Honglei Chen is an MSU Foundation professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine. His current research is focused on the health of older adults and how losing their sense of smell may be an early indicator of Parkinson’s disease, dementia or other diseases.

Q: What inspired you to study the link between people losing their sense of smell and health issues and diseases?
A: For the past 20 years, I have been studying the natural history and risk factors of Parkinson’s disease, for which poor olfaction (sense of smell) is a key prodromal (preclinical) symptom. As my research developed, I found poor olfaction might have much more to tell us about the health of older adults beyond its predicting power for Parkinson’s disease and dementia.

Q: Why is this research important?

A: Poor sense of smell affects up to a quarter of older U.S. adults, and it’s a symptom that often goes unrecognized. However, it may have profound health implications beyond its known associations with Parkinson’s disease and dementia. As a smell test is easy and noninvasive. Our novel research may eventually inform the greater need to assess olfaction (good, moderate or poor) in the elderly during clinical visits by identifying new adverse health outcomes of poor olfaction; to monitor and better anticipate risks of impending conditions; and to inform the identification of at-risk populations for novel interventional trials.

Q: How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed/impacted your research?

A: The COVID-19 pandemic highlights the importance of epidemiological research, and it has affected my own research in multiple ways. COVID-19 disproportionally affects the health of older adults and those with comorbidity, making it critically important to recognize early signs of deteriorating health in older adults. Further, poor olfaction is a presenting symptom of COVID-19, which may provide a novel conceptual framework to dissect the complex relationship between viral infection, poor olfaction and neurodegeneration in older adults. Finally, COVID-19 has also presented substantial practical difficulties in conducting my research, for example, in the field data collection and the assembly and maintenance of the study team.

For more information on Chen’s research, here is a recent article published in MSUToday.

Source: Can you smell this?

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“It has real passion, real emotion, real terror and a tactile sense of evil.”

— David Ansen